DUBAI Etisalat ETEL.AD, the Gulf's biggest telecommunications operator, has hired Goldman Sachs Group Inc (GS.N) to advise on its planned bid for Pakistan mobile operator Warid Telecom, two sources aware of the matter said.
Warid, the country's smallest operator, has been put on the block in a sale likely to fetch up to $1 billion, Reuters reported last month. Etisalat and China Mobile (0941.HK), who have existing operations in the country, were seen as potential bidders.
Etisalat, which is also in exclusive talks with Vivendi (VIV.PA) to buy its 53 percent stake in Maroc Telecom (IAM.CS), has existing operations in Pakistan through its stake in Pakistan Telecommunication Co Ltd (PTCL) (PTCA.KA).
Acquisition of Warid, owned by conglomerate The Abu Dhabi Group, would give the company an opportunity to consolidate its operations in the country, said one banking source speaking on condition of anonymity as the sale process has not been publicly disclosed.
Both Etisalat and Goldman Sachs declined to comment.
Pakistan's mobile telecommunications sector has five operators and is ripe for consolidation after a period when a troubled economy, increasingly high levels of market penetration and stiff competition has forced companies' margins lower.
Daniel Ritz, Etisalat's chief strategy officer, told Reuters on Tuesday the UAE telecom group would look at opportunities to bolster its existing portfolio without specifying whether the firm was bidding for Warid.
"We will consider ... opportunities in areas where it gives us a chance to consolidate our existing portfolio," Ritz told Reuters.
Warid launched its cellular services in Pakistan in May 2005 and had 12.54 million subscribers by the end of March this year, down from 17.39 million in 2010-11.
Other operators in Pakistan are Oslo-based Telenor (TEL.OL) and Orascom Telecom ORTE.CA, which operates under the name Mobilink and is the sector leader.
The sellers are being advised by Standard Chartered (STAN.L) and Lazard (LAZ.N). The Abu Dhabi Group, led by ruling family member Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak al-Nahayan, has large investments in Pakistan including Bank Alfalah Ltd (BAFL.KA), Al Razi Healthcare and Wateen Telecom.
(Editing by David Holmes)